Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
Family Guy, Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, American Dad, and the long-departed King of the Hill are mostly different shows (excepting the Seth MacFarlane creations) with their own respective premises and styles, but here they’re mashed together for a collectible card game that’s both funny and solidly fun, too. I’m not convinced it’s a game that will hold long stretches of attention, however, which is worth considering once the in-app purchase prompts begin.
Animation Throwdown blends together all five cartoon universes into a single concoction, meaning Peter Griffin and Hank Hill or maybe Tina Belcher and Bender might tussle over a game of cards. It doesn’t bother much with story, really, but the one-liners are pretty constant—and often amusing, too. Better yet, many of the cards themselves are based on specific moments from each show, rewarding fans with hilarious callbacks.
Building a collectible card game from five different animated series might not seem like the most obvious premise, but the use of the source material is actually pretty strong. And as a card game, Animation Throwdown has fairly solid fundamentals, too.
Each card has attack and defense stats, and is placed on the board across from an opponent’s same slot. When it’s your turn, your placed cards each attack the opposite one and deal any extra damage to your rival, with the goal of depleting his or her hearts before yours are gone. It’s pretty straightforward and easy to pick up, although certain cards’ status modifiers—which can boost your other cards, block attacks, and trigger other perks—can complicate matters and really shift the momentum in a match. Cards can also be combined to pack a powerful punch.
Animation Throwdown has hundreds of cards to earn and unlock, along with an Adventure mode that spans 25 chapters, each with three battles that you can play repeatedly for new rewards. It also has a multiplayer mode of sorts, although you’re really just facing someone else’s deck controlled by an A.I. player. In either mode, the game is laughably easy at first and stays that way for many, many matches. And then things start to pick up.
Fox and Kongregate’s game is stacked with free-to-play elements, but you might not know it right off the bat. For example, it has an energy meter that dwindles when you play Adventure mode missions, but the meter isn’t introduced for a while—I don’t think it appeared until I had already logged a good couple hours of play.
Each block in the meter takes 10 minutes to refill, and after the easy first few chapters of the adventure mode, each mission requires two energy blocks. Play a few quick missions and you might be stuck waiting for a while, or shelling out a big stack of gems to refill the meter. Curiously, the “online” Arena battles use a totally separate energy meter, although you’re given a ton of bonus energy. For some reason, I have “44 out of 10” energy to play those battles as of this writing. Sure, why not?
Spending big money in a competitive-style game without a true, live competitive element strikes me as a questionable investment, and that’s especially true when the prices are high. Here, they’re extravagant. For example, I spent 600 gems to pull a single, random “Legendary” card from a special promotion in the store—and the bundle of 825 gems I bought to pick that one card cost $10. So I effectively spent more than $7 in real money to get one card.
It’s a powerful card, sure, but I just can’t reconcile the cost. You’ll also find discounted bundles for $10 or $20 with gems, Giggitywatts (another currency, used to upgrade cards), and maybe a card or two. And there are three-card Epic Packs for 800 gems (almost $10 worth), although only one card within is guaranteed to be a powerful pick. In any configuration, the quality cards seem far too expensive, plus you can get some without spending.
Cards can be earned as rewards for completing quests or by pulling random cards by spending earned coins. Most of the cards you’ll pull on the latter front are common, but you’ll draw rare and more useful cards on occasion. Each can also be upgraded several times over to gain more strength, defense, and/or perks, plus you can watch video ads before each play session to boost your rewards. All told, you have options that don’t involve spending money.
Like the surprisingly strong Futurama: Game of Drones from earlier this year, Animation Throwdown makes a nice first impression. It’s not the game you might expect to be made based on the licenses in play, but there’s a decent card game here beneath all of the familiar sights and characters, and it’s pretty fun for a little while.
Longer-term, I don’t see enough upside to spending. Without live head-to-head matchups, the prospect of shelling out for powerful cards has little long-term meaning, and I yielded enough quality cards through regular play to still feel competitive after hours of play. I doubt there’s enough depth here to satisfy hardcore genre fans who are probably better served by Hearthstone’s huge community and ever-expanding card and feature set. Animation Throwdown is good for a laugh, and watching video ads to boost your benefits isn’t a bad deal at all, but paying big doesn’t pay off enough here.
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Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.